A lot of people ask me what’s different between my career on the Pro Tour now and when I played many years ago. Back then I was only mildly successful. I did very well in Grand Prix but had only a single Pro Tour Top 8 in over 30 appearances. Since coming back to the Pro Tour I’ve made Top 8 in four of twelve events including two wins. What changed?
The biggest difference is self-awareness. I’m older now and my experiences since have given a much better grasp of where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I have a better understanding of how to give myself the best chance to be successful and I have the maturity to recognize when my impulses are leading me astray—at least most of the time. Nowadays I use Grand Prix events as my opportunity to play my pet decks but when it comes to the PT it’s all business. Years ago I might have been stubborn enough to play my Daybreak Ranger deck in the Pro Tour despite knowing that Wolf Run gave me a better chance to win but today I don’t let my ego stand in the way of my success.
My improved self-awareness isn’t limited to such things as deck selection either. I’m much better at understanding the kind of environment that is best for me. I’ve made a habit since I started playing on the Pro Tour again to pay close attention to my sleep schedule at tournaments. I don’t just mean getting enough sleep either though that’s something I recommend to anyone who’s serious about doing well in an event. What I mean is that in the week or so prior to the Pro Tour I try to get on a sleep schedule that actually synchs up with the hours of the event so my body is used to waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. I know lots of players who stay up until all hours and sleep in until noon during testing and then try to immediately switch to waking up for a 9 AM player meeting for the Pro Tour. While that may work for them I know it doesn’t work for me so I do my best to adjust to the tournament schedule ahead of time.
It was thanks to this time adjustment that I was able to get out of bed bright and early Friday morning without too much protest from my body. The team had agreed to meet to discuss the final details of the deck over breakfast and I wanted to be involved. I got up and got ready with time to spare before the scheduled meeting time so I decided to wander to the beach across the street from our hotel to take in some of my surroundings.
That’s another thing I’ve learned over the years—perspective is important. It’s easy to get caught up in the magnitude of a Pro Tour and obsess over spending all of your time preparing but sometimes you need to just stop and relax. At least I do. A big part of my pre-match musical ritual is exactly that—to calm the storm of thoughts running through my head and just take a few minutes to refocus. Back in the olden days I used to watch Searching for Bobby Fischer before I left for every major tournament. Sometimes you need to go fishing instead of just play more chess. If you haven’t seen that movie by the way you should watch it immediately. It’s perhaps the greatest movie about competitive gaming ever made. If you have seen it—well I’m offering you the draw.
At the team breakfast we finalized the last couple slots in our main deck and figured out our sideboard. We knew we wanted a ninth removal spell in our main deck but opinions were split over whether it should be Shock or Whipflare. Shock played better with Huntmaster but Whipflare helped deal with Geist which was the biggest problem card out of most Delver decks. Ultimately most of us went with Whipflare. I ended up being pretty happy about that particular decision.
If somehow you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen it before right now here’s the deck I played:
- 3 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 2 Inferno Titan
- 4 Primeval Titan
- 1 Thrun, the Last Troll
After breakfast we hopped into cabs and headed to the site. I finished sleeving my deck then wandered around the site with my song of the tournament—Concrete Angel by Gareth Emery—blasting in my ears. Soon enough it was time.
Round 1 – Patrick Cox
Pat and I seem to play at every event these days. It’s really pretty uncanny. We also never seem to be featured and this time was no exception. Pat was playing Esper Control and I pretty much just overpowered him with Titans. In game one I managed to kill a Sorin Lord of Innistrad with Huntmaster of the Fells because Pat didn’t realize it had trample. We knew we’d get some extra value from playing Huntmaster because our opponents wouldn’t be familiar with playing against the card but Pat had apparently not only tested with the card quite a bit but had done so with the real card and not proxies. The card does have a ton of text though so that single keyword can be easy to overlook. Trample played an important role in our second game as well when I snuck through just enough damage with a Wolf Run fueled Acidic Slime to get Pat into range of Slagstorm when he had a Consecrated Sphinx in play.
Round 2 - Jesse Hampton
Jesse was playing Delver and I played against so many Delver decks over the course of the tournament that most of the matches run together in my memory. I know I won game one with Huntmaster while Jesse stalled on land against my Thrun the Last Troll in game two.
Round 3 - Nico Bohny
Ah irony. I switched away from playing G/R beatdown the night before the tournament because I didn’t feel like it could realistically beat Wolf Run and sure enough here I am in round three paired against a G/R beatdown deck that mops the floor with me—on camera no less. Granted Nico’s draws were basically perfect with Llanowar Elves into Sword of War and Peace on the play in game one and mana creature into Thrun the Last Troll into Urabrask with double Mutagenic Growth in game two. Still it was a little amusing—and a bit unsettling—to be dispatched in such a fashion after my late-night audible. I was impressed by some of the ideas in Nico’s deck though: Urabrask and Hellrider in particular were cards I hadn’t really tried that seemed pretty sweet. But there was a long way to go before I would be brewing up new decks….
Round 4 – Daniel Grenier
Round 5 - Arthur Halavais
Arthur was playing an Esper token deck that seemed particularly ill suited to fighting against Wolf Run—he didn’t have a single piece of counter magic in his deck. Between the three games we played I had an average opening hand size of 5.6 and still emerged victorious. This kind of deck is exactly the reason to play Wolf Run. Primeval Titan gives you the ability to just go over the top of any kind of midrange strategy. It almost doesn’t matter what they do—once you play a Titan the game virtually ends on the spot.
After my third round loss I was happy to make it to the draft at 4-1. My draft table was not an easy one however:
I was happy to be across the table from BenS and Paulo and have most of the players I didn’t recognize seated around me since they were more likely to misevaluate the newer cards. I started the draft off with a Tragic Slip then picked another black card in the second pack. The player to my right picked a Loyal Cathar second so I figured I’d settle into B/R nicely but then he passed me a Burden of Guilt fourth pick and I was somewhat confused. I figured it must have been an exceptionally strong pack and passed it along but he then took a Hinterland Hermit a few picks later and I didn’t know what was going on. I ended up with a decent but unspectacular B/R deck with a few filler cards. I thought the deck was good for a 2-1 finish maybe 3-0 with good draws.
Round 6 - Dustin Taylor
Picture this. Your opponent is at three life. You have six lands in play along with a pair of two power creatures and a Pitchburn Devils wearing an Executioner’s Hood. In your graveyard you have a Geistflame and a Bump in the Night. Your opponent has only a Skaab Goliath a Fortress Crab and a Nephalia Seakite. To top it all off—you’re at eighteen life. You’re feeling pretty good about your chances aren’t you?
Well so was I. Then my opponent attacked with both of his creatures and played Moment of Heroism on the Goliath putting me to 10 and him to 11. He then Claustrophobia’d my Pitchburn Devils and passed the turn back. Suddenly I went from having him dead any number of ways to being far far behind in the race. I died two turns later.
The particularly strange thing about this match is that I had very specifically hate drafted a Moment of Heroism going in Dustin’s direction but chose not to hate a second one over a very marginal sideboard card for my deck. It’s extremely rare that the situation actually comes up that a card you might have hate drafted actually beats you which makes it feel all that much more painful when it does. I’d make the exact same pick again.
Round 7 - Brian Schneider
No not that Brian Schneider. This match nearly tilted me. In game one I had a decent start and beat Brian down to eleven life while he played out an assortment of various equipment—a Sharpened Pitchfork and a Silver-Inlaid Dagger—along with a pair of Highborn Ghouls. I had a Walking Corpse and a tapped Galvanic Juggernaut when Brian attacked with his Ghouls. I had Bump in my hand along with copious amounts of mana so I decided to block one of his Ghouls to untap my Juggernaut and potentially hit him for lethal next turn since he only had the one card he’d drawn this turn in hand. It turned out that one card was Markov Patrician which became a 5/1 first striker when fully suited up and ate my Juggernaut when it had to attack the following turn.
The next game was almost worse. Brian played a turn two Skirsdag High Priest which he was able to activate with a Brain Weevil on turn four stripping the last of my hand and leaving him with a 5/5 flier. I managed to draw Death’s Caress to kill the High Priest almost immediately and was hanging on desperately to survive and getting in a few attacks where I could until I drew Falkenrath Noble. Thanks to my Stromkirk Captain my Screeching Bat and Noble were able to trade with the demon token and slowly but surely I climbed back into what had seemed like an unwinnable game.
In game three Brian kept a land light hand and I punished him severely with Fiend of the Shadows tearing his hand apart and making it impossible to come back.
After the match I took a deep breath and steadied myself. I felt great having come back from what felt like certain defeat in the second game but I needed to shake off the negativity that had nearly taken hold of me when it looked like I was going to lose.
I went outside and found Ben Stark who was celebrating the fact that he’d gotten a win with his deck that he’d deemed virtually unplayable. He told me that he hoped to play me the next round because if he was going to be 20% to win against anyone he figured he might as well give the match win to me.
Round 8 - Ben Stark
I was happy to give Ben his wish. To his dismay however the match was played on camera so the whole world got to see how brutally I destroyed him. Not only was Ben’s deck bad—with Hinterland Hermit plus Spectral Flight as Plan A—but it was particularly poorly set up against mine since I had a solid mix of removal. Neither of our games was especially close and I was happy to close out the draft with a 2-1 finish.
Ben and I went around trying to find anyone else on the team who was done so we could go get dinner but we’d finished so fast that everyone was still playing. We did run into Tom Martell however who was done and looking to blow off some steam after getting horrifically leveled by Estratti in their match. We went in search of food and found a Benihana not far from Tom’s hotel. Ben was generous enough (read: unlucky enough) to pay for our meal and we all headed back to get some sleep with delicious hibachi in our bellies.
I woke up the next morning bright and early and found that Ben had been unable to sleep and had decided to hit the gym. I took the opportunity to once again head across the street to take in the scenery before heading to the tournament site.
Neither Ben nor I wanted to have any kind of heavy breakfast so we just stopped by the 7-11 across the street from the tournament venue and stocked up on snack bars. I tend to find that I’m best able to focus when I’m slightly hungry but not starving so I like to eat small amounts throughout the day of a tournament rather than have any kind of sizable meals.
My second draft pod was much less imposing than the first. Dan Jordan was to my right and Jason Ford was across the table but I didn’t really know most of the others players. I opened a pack with Tragic Slip and Drogskol Captain as the best cards. The Captain is the more powerful of the two cards but is far more heavily committing as a first pick. I also saw Soul Seizer opened two seats to my right and while I don’t like the card that much I anticipated one of the two players taking it and going into blue so I took the Tragic Slip. I followed that up with a Lingering Souls which pretty clearly pushed me in the direction of W/B. W/B is one of the decks that I really like since it makes excellent use of cards that aren’t heavily sought by other strategies like Village Cannibals and Disciple of Griselbrand.
I was happy to pick up a Gather the Townsfolk Faith’s Shield and a few random white creatures out of the first pack but it seemed pretty clear that I was sharing the color with Dan. I certainly wasn’t about to move out of it though—especially when I opened Mikaeus the Lunarch in pack two to make my tokens into real powerhouses. The deck really came together after that with only one pick I regretted in retrospect being a Rally the Peasants over Divine Reckoning. At the time I had several token makers and no way to really abuse the Reckoning but ended the draft with an Unruly Mob and a pair of Village Cannibals which would've made the rare truly insane. Still I had a really solid deck and thought I had a good chance to 3-0.
Round 9 - Dinh Nguyen
Dinh was a very friendly very talkative Canadian player and we had some excellent games. My deck didn’t really deliver in the first game as I flooded out but I still nearly killed him with Rally the Peasants boosting my Lingering Souls army. However he had a pump spell to kill me the turn before I could do it. I took the second game convincingly and in the third game Dinh had to double mulligan. He was still in it however thanks to a Briarpack Alpha and Cackling Counterpart making all of my attacks extremely troublesome. I managed to push through the final damage with Faith’s Shield on an enormous Village Cannibals.
Round 10 – Jason Ford
My deck basically looked like a constructed deck in the games against Jason. He kept a very strong hand in game one with Evil Twin and Beguiler of Wills but stalled on land briefly and I ran him over with tokens. In game two I had Lingering Souls into Mikaeus and that was all she wrote.
Round 11 - Jason Schousboe
I didn’t know much about Jason’s deck when we sat down except that he was B/R splashing for a Kessig Wolf Run. I quickly learned that he was super aggressive B/R when he fired off an early Bump at my face. B/R aggro doesn’t match up very well against W/B however which was never more apparent than when Jason had to play a pair of Bloodcrazed Neonate into my Gather the Township tokens. That didn’t end well for him.
For the second game I actually boarded in Maw of the Mire since both halves of the effect were good against his deck—it could destroy his Wolf Run or his Forest to power it and it could also gain life to keep me out of Bump range. I never drew it but I never needed it either.
A 3-0 record in draft left me in striking distance of Top 8. I started to try to recruit the rest of the team who wasn’t playing on day two to get a scouting list together of the top tables—we already had a lot of it filled out from day one.
Round 12 - Bruno Lombardelli
Delver once again and once again I don’t recall the details of our match. If I were to wager a guess I’d say that Huntmaster and Thrun did the dirty work. It’s worth noting by the way that the vast majority of my wins in the tournament came from those two cards and not actually from Titans. Titans are just the big dumb sledgehammer you use to beat the bad decks—Huntmaster and Thrun are the guys who win you the tough matches.
Round 13 - Denniz Rachid
At this point I was paired against the last remaining player with a single loss who I knew was playing the Delver/Human hybrid deck. I hadn’t actually tested against it but my guess was that it was an easier matchup than either Delver or Humans since it lacks the truly scary cards of either—Sword Geist and Hero of Bladehold. Sure enough I managed to dispatch Dennis in two quick games without much resistance thanks to—you guessed it—Huntmaster and Thrun. In talking to Denniz after the match he confided that he’d cut Phantasmal Image from his deck the night before so he didn’t have a single way to actually stop Thrun. I wished him good luck on making Top 8 while inwardly hoping I’d get another chance to play him once I got there.
Round 14 - Mamoru Nagai
At this point I thought I was guaranteed to play against yet another Delver deck since it was only me and four of them left at 11-2. I got paired down however against exactly the deck I didn’t want to face—Jund Wolf Run. I hadn’t actually played the matchup before but on paper they should have a sizable edge. Not only do they have more Titans but they can also actually kill Titans that hit play with Go for the Throat and Doom Blade. That said it’s still a ramp mirror which means whoever plays the first Primeval Titan almost certainly wins.
Our first game was remarkably awkward. Both of us stalled on land after mulliganing but I had a Huntmaster to get some damage in. At one point Mamoru blocked in such a way that it seemed like he didn’t realize Ravager had trample and I was able to Wolf Run a token to put him to six life. He played a Grave Titan the following turn while I was still stalled on five mana but I was able to finish him off with a pair of Slagstorm thanks to the extra damage that I’d gotten through on the previous turn.
Game two was standard ramp mirror—he went first and played a Titan and I died a horrible death. Game three was nearly the same as I kept a hand with two ramp spells three land and a Titan plus Karn but I bricked twice on land and had to pass on turn four after playing a mere Huntmaster. Mamoru was more fortunate at least this time and put me out of my misery with back-to-back Titans.
Round 15 - Mates Vantuch
When I saw the pairings for this round I was somewhat frustrated to see that I had gotten paired down yet again. I had a brief moment of terror when I saw that my opponent was Czech since Juza had mentioned the day before that the other Czechs were playing one of two decks—U/B or Birthing Pod. When I sat down for the round however Mates made a comment that he thought I knew what he was playing and grinned sheepishly when I told him that I’d played against Lukas a lot. Sure enough he was playing Birthing Pod and I breathed a sigh of relief. Our games weren’t really all that interesting—the Naya Birthing Pod deck gets absolutely trounced by ramp and our match was no exception.
At this point people were congratulating me and wishing me good luck in the Top 8 but I wasn’t about to take anything as a given yet. I’d just been paired down twice in a row and I knew there was still a chance for something to go wrong. When I found out that Jesse Hampton and Estratti had unintentionally drawn in the penultimate round and the math wouldn’t work out for a clean cut my stomach tied up in knots. Once they announced the feature matches for the last round and I didn’t hear my name called however I knew I was in the clear.
Round 16 - Matt Costa
I sat down across from Matt Costa and shook his hand. I’m not sure who had a bigger grin on his face.
The last round made for a huge amount of drama since Paulo got paired down and had to play and the unintentional draw put Jelger in the position that he could win and make it in. Both of them made it which ended up being the best possible situation since it set up the brackets such that Paulo and I couldn’t play until the finals—and it looked like I had nothing but favorable matchups on my way there starting with a rematch with Denniz Rachid.
That night Paulo and I took the rest of the team out to dinner and decided not to bother anyone with play testing since we were both exhausted and just wanted to sleep. I felt extremely confident in my quarterfinal matchup and expected to face Jon in the semifinals so I agreed to meet Paulo and Luis at the site in the morning to go over that matchup since Paulo was set to face Jelger in the quarters.
I woke up the next morning hours before I had to be at the site. I decided to go for a walk to clear my head. I packed up all of my things put "Concrete Angel" on repeat and set out. Three hours later I found myself at the venue as ready as I would ever be to win a Pro Tour—with my tiger hat in tow.
I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about my tiger hat and I feel like I should clear them up. It's not a scarf and it's not a vest. It's a hat. It was a gift from my friend Gabe since I’m a huge fan of tigers—and specifically white tigers. I’d kept it on top of my PT Austin trophy on my bookshelf where it was noticed by some viewers of my stream and I took to wearing it occasionally while I was playing online. In my final stream before I left for Honolulu I made a promise to my viewers (in a state of mild inebriation) that if I made Top 8 of the Pro Tour that I’d bring the hat with me. And as I am an honest Puck I did just that. Part of the goal of my walk that morning in addition to clearing my head was to purchase a jacket that matched the tiger hat. I couldn’t find one. I run so bad don’t I?
My quarterfinal match was over so quickly that we didn’t get any camera time. Much as evidenced by our match in the Swiss Denniz’s deck did not match up well against mine and I was on to the semifinals.
Oh the semifinals. If there is a single match of Magic that I have ever played that I will remember forever that is the one. Coming in I felt like I was a big favorite in the matchup due in part to the fact that I won every game I played against Jon himself when we were testing the match between rounds. I certainly felt great after I won the first game and didn’t feel much worse after I nearly won a nail biter of a game two after I’d mulliganed to five cards. It wasn’t until Jon managed to steal game three as well that I started to feel anything but confident.
One might say that my confidence dipped a little bit in game four when I was dead on board with only five outs in my deck but Whipflare was there to help perk me up. And I may not have been in the best of spirits in game five when I was once again dead the following turn but somehow the best player to have ever played Magic decided not to block my lowly Wolf token. Three Galvanic Blasts later I was in the finals.
I’m not sure what else to say. It was all very surreal. One moment I was mentally telling myself that a Top 4 finish was pretty damn good and the next Jon was saying "I guess I should have blocked."
For a more detailed look at my thought process in the game itself I suggest checking out the final segment of this video. I recorded a DVD Extra-style commentary of game five against Jon shortly after I won and I don’t think I could do better explaining things than I did there.
As for the finals—basically of me and Paulo I ended up being the luckier one. I wish I could claim to have come up with some masterful sideboarding plan or strategy for the mirror match that I could impart unto you for your future tournaments but every single game was decided as they always are—by who plays a Titan first. I knew I had a big edge after I managed to win on the draw in game three and when I saw my opening hand in game five I almost knew I had won already.
Still it didn’t really set in even after the game was over. I had won. Again. My immediate post on Twitter after the fact was: "Wow. Just Wow" and frankly I still feel that way. I don’t know that I can do the feeling justice with words even now. I look back over my shoulder and see my new trophy on my bookshelf—in the place of honor topped with the tiger hat—and it still kind of feels like a dream.
I wonder what the third one will feel like…
Now I want to find out.